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Snap Judgments: Patriots 41, Broncos 23

12.18.11 at 7:29 pm ET
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The Patriots clinched the AFC East title — their ninth in 11 years — on Sunday, as Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in a 41-23 victory over the Broncos. The Patriots put up 452 yards of offense against a Denver defense that had been outstanding in recent weeks.

The defense was awful in the opening quarter — allowing 167 yards rushing, most ever in a quarter against a Bill Belichick defense — but forced a pair of turnovers in the second quarter and gave up just seven points over the last 44 minutes (just 167 yards allowed over the final three quarters). Tim Tebow did rush for 88 yards and a pair of TDs but was sacked four times and fumbled twice, losing one of them.

The Patriots (11-3) now look for the top seed in the AFC. They host the Dolphins at Gillette on Saturday.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

— Look, all the hype this week was about Tebow — which is completely understandable, it’s the reality of things — but it was more than a little odd to see Brady reduced to second banana status all week. And it’s probably a reach to suggest that he needed extra motivation on Sunday, but Brady rose to the challenge of playing in perhaps the most anticipated regular-season game of the season, completing 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a one-yard score.

Aaron Hernandez had the best game of the career, setting highs with nine catches and 129 yards. He hauled in a one-yard TD pass from Brady in the second quarter, and on the next drive caught a fourth-and-inches pass from Brady and turned it into a 25-yard gain. Hernandez made Rahim Moore miss in the open field on several occasions, including a 22-yard gainer to the Denver 1 in the fourth quarter. He also chipped in with a 16-yard rush in the second quarter. Rob Gronkowski is having as good a season as any player at his position has ever produced, but Hernandez is putting together a very solid sophomore year.

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Mark Anderson forced a fumble by Tebow in the second quarter and showed tremendous hustle by also recovering the loose football. And Anderson later picked up a third-down sack of Tebow to halt a drive in the third quarter and had another QB takedown in the fourth quarter. Ron Brace also forced a fumble in the second quarter, ripping the ball out of the hands of Lance Ball. Rob Ninkovich made the recovery. Ninkovich also closed out any hope for another Tebow miracle with a 29-yard sack on fourth down with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

— Colts win, Packers lose, Chad Ochocinco scores a touchdown. Our long nightmare is finally over, as Brady hit Ochocinco (who beat Andre Goodman) for a 33-yard score in the first quarter. That was it for Ochocinco — who started in place of Deion Branch — as he appeared to have more miscommunication issues with Brady. Read the rest of this entry »

Halftime analysis: Patriots 27, Broncos 16

12.18.11 at 5:58 pm ET
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Two quarters are in the book in Denver, and the Patriots hold a 27-16 lead on the Broncos. Here are a few notes/highlights:

‘€¢Tom Brady is 12-for-21 for 171 yards and two touchdowns, while Aaron Hernandez has six catches for 83 yards. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow is 5-for-8 for 68 yards, while Lance Ball had eight carries for 60 yards and a touchdown. After a rough start, the Patriots took advantage of three second-quarter fumbles to put 20 unanswered points on the board.

‘€¢It started ugly for the Patriots: A 10-play opening drive for Denver ended with a nine-yard run from Tebow, a sequence where the New England defense was gashed consistently on the ground as much as it had been all season. It was a nine-play, 80-yard drive that finished with Tebow’s run on a play where the New England defense displayed little if any of the gap discipline it needs to contain the quarterback. It was more of the same on Denver’s second drive, where it was a lot of running by the Broncos and a lot of poor form tackling by the Patriots, who struggled to bring down any runner over the first two quarters. Ball crashed through the New England defense for a 32-yard touchdown run that made it 13-7.

‘€¢Denver’s first two touchdowns were sandwiched around New England’s first TD of the day. On the Patriots’ first possession, New England answered with a pair of big pass plays, including a 33-yard pass play down the far sidelines where Chad Ochocinco ran a straight route down the field and became open because of a double team on fellow receiver Wes Welker. Ochocinco actually had to slow down to make the catch, but ended up beating Andre Goodman to the end zone. (Ochocinco also delivered a nice block to spring tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 46-yard gain down the near sideline on the same drive.)

‘€¢The best sequence of the half for the Patriots’ defense came midway through the second quarter when New England forced a pair of turnovers that changed the tone of the game. On the first, Denver running back Lance Ball was tied up by linebacker Dane Fletcher and the ball was knocked away by defensive lineman Ron Brace and the fumble was recovered nicely by Rob Ninkovich. New England quickly turned that into a 21-yard field goal to make it 17-16. On the Broncos’ next possession, defensive end Mark Anderson poked the ball away from Tebow (he also recovered the football), and the Patriots turned that into a touchdown with a one-yard plunge from  Brady that made it 24-16 with 1:12 left in the first half. (That drive was highlighted by a 25-yard pass play from Brady to Hernandez on a fourth-and-2 to get New England down to the Denver six.) The Patriots tacked on another three at the end of the first half when Denver fumbled away a punt return and Gostkowski added his second field goal of the afternoon, a 34-yarder to make it 27-16 at the half.

‘€¢For the Patriots, the highlight of the half offensively came on their third series when Brady put together a 12-play, 80-yard drive that included a 19-yard pass down the middle from Brady to Welker that got the Patriots down to the Denver one-yard line. The drive culminated with a one-yard pass from Brady to Hernandez. It took 5:04, and finally gave the New England defense an extended breather for the first time all afternoon.

‘€¢One thing that could have a long-term impact on the New England pass rush is an apparent left knee injury to defensive end Andre Carter, who went down in the first quarter and had to be carted off. (The Patriots announced in the second quarter that he would not return.) Through 13 games, Carter leads New England in quarterback sacks (10) and hits (22). The Patriots also lost right guard Brian Waters for a few snaps in the first half with what appeared to be a calf injury. However, the Patriots weren’t the only one that was bitten by the injury bug — Denver’s leading rusher, Willis McGahee, left in the first quarter with a leg injury.

A closer look at the Patriots’ inactives: Without Branch, Hernandez could have more active role

12.18.11 at 3:08 pm ET
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The Patriots inactives for Sunday’s game against the Broncos in Denver are as follows: safety Patrick Chung, running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Brandon Spikes, offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, wide receiver Deion Branch, center Nick McDonald and quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Chung (foot), Spikes (knee), Vollmer (back and foot) and Vereen (hamstring) have struggled with injuries over the last few weeks — they were all listed as “questionable” on the injury report on Friday — so it’s no surprise they’ve been deactivated. Meanwhile Branch was not on the injury list on Friday, but was apparently dinged up at the end of the Redskins game last week with a groin injury and was not in the lineup down the stretch last Sunday.

With Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly on the shelf the last couple of weeks because of injury, McDonald saw a sizable chunk of time at the center spot, but it appears that both Wendell and Connolly are good to go today. (Sunday marks the first time Connolly is active since Nov. 21.) Other notables who aren’t on the inactive list include defensive lineman Gerard Warren, who was a healthy scratch last week.

As for those who should see extra time because of the inactives, figure that the Patriots could lean on part-time safety Matthew Slater for some depth in the secondary, as well as Ross Ventrone, who was just re-signed to the 53-man roster. They’ll provide support for a group that includes James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown. At linebacker, even though Spikes is out again, New England has some good depth at the spot with Dane Fletcher starting to get into more of an active role again. No Vollmer at the right tackle spot means that rookie Nate Solder will likely go wire-to-wire at that position, and perhaps more of a role for fellow rookie offensive lineman Marcus Cannon. Meanwhile, Vereen hasn’t had much of an impact as a rookie, so his absence is likely negligible. And Mallett has been inactive for all but one game this season as the extra quarterback.

As for Branch, that’s likely the most intriguing inactive of the day. The veteran receiver has been a steady, dependable presence on the outside for quarterback Tom Brady. Without him, Brady will lean on tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker even more than he already does. This will also open up options in the passing game for tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has some of the versatility needed to fill in on the outside. In addition, wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood could also get more looks.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, Chad Ochocinco, Dan Connolly

Live Blog: Can the Patriots buck the Broncos (and that Tebow guy)?

12.18.11 at 3:00 pm ET
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Two of the hottest teams in the NFL will go head-to-head on Sunday, as the Broncos (winners of six straight) and their little-discussed quarterback will host a Patriots team (and its little known quarterback) that has won five straight. The only AFC team with a longer winning streak right now is the Houston Texans.

For all the latest news, analysis and insight into the game, join the WEEI.com live blog below.

Patriots/Broncos Live Blog

Why Matt Prater may be more important than Tim Tebow

12.18.11 at 2:02 pm ET
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Forget Tim Tebow. Matt Prater is the most valuable player in the Broncos‘ miraculous six-game winning streak. Prater has kicked the winning field goal in Denver’s last three games and in five of Denver’s eight wins this season.

Without the powerful and artful foot of Prater, Tebow and the Broncos aren’t on the cover of Sports Illustrated and getting their own Saturday Night Live skits.

The best example of this came last week against the Bears, when Tebow was limited by the clock and could only get the Broncos to the Bears’ 40, down 10-7.

Prater came on and booted a 59-yarder that had about 10 yards to spare. Tie game. Then, on Denver’s first possession of overtime, Prater nailed the game-winner from 51 yards. The 59-yarder was the second of Prater’s career in the mile-high air. Prater owns three of the six longest field goals in team history. Jason Elam has the longest in franchise and NFL history at 63 yards against Jacksonville in 1998.

Prater, you might recall, had the overtime game-winner on this same field in 2009 when then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels did his epic celebration after beating the Patriots, 20-17.

“Field goal range is extended,” Belichick said. “Absolutely, he’€™s like [12-for-16] from over 50 or whatever it is. He’€™s got the leg but he’€™s also an accurate kicker. He’€™s hit a lot of long ones. Scott [Scott O’€™Brien] coached him out there. We know him, he knows him. We know this guy has got a lot of leg so yeah, absolutely it extends your defense in those situations in terms of the field goal. If you’€™re trying to protect against the field goal then you’€™re extending out a little bit further. Again, that’€™s something we talk about every week. We go into the game with what we feel like the opposing kicker’€™s range is, also our kicker, what our kicker’€™s range is, how far we have to get to. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Denver Broncos, Mario Haggan, Matt Prater, New England Patriots

Setting the scene: Patriots-Broncos

12.18.11 at 12:23 pm ET
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It will be a very mild day in the Mile High City when the Patriots take the field against Tim Tebow and the Broncos this afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-50s at kickoff as the 10-3 Patriots can clinch their third straight AFC East title and their ninth in 11 seasons with their sixth straight win. The Patriots also clinch the AFC East with a tie and a Jets’ loss or just a Jets’ loss at Philadelphia.

The Patriots will not have Deion Branch today as he injured his groin last week during the win over the Redskins. Branch was ruled out Saturday night by the team. Patrick Chung didn’t even make the trip to Denver, as he and his injured right foot took in the Celtics scrimmage Friday at TD Garden, staying behind as the team traveled west on Friday afternoon, heading out early to adjust to the time change and altitude.

Also ruled out by the team on Saturday night were offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (right foot), who will miss his third straight game, linebacker Brandon Spikes (right knee), missing his sixth straight game and Shane Vereen (hamstring). That leaves just two players who will be gameday scratches, one of whom will be likely be quarterback Ryan Mallett, inactive since Week 3 against the Bills.

Safety Ross Ventrone was signed off the practice squad on Saturday and will be activated for today’s game. He takes the place defensive back Malcolm Williams, who was released this week. Coach Bill Belichick said Williams was released for this game because they felt other players could better fit their scheme this week.

While the Broncos have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, there is reason to think the Tom Brady could pick apart the secondary. Safety Brian Dawkins (neck) reportedly did not participate in the Broncos walkthrough on Saturday while various reports indicate another safety – David Bruton (Achilles) is also expected to be out. The team signed safety Kyle McCarthy back to active roster Saturday. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: AFC East, Denver Broncos, kyle orton, New England Patriots

SNL takes on Tim Tebow (and the Patriots as well)

12.18.11 at 11:38 am ET
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Indirectly, the Patriots got a mention on “Saturday Night Live” as part of the buildup to the Broncos game on Sunday. Worth a watch:

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